Saturday, July 12, 2008


By Edgar Kieu

With reference to an article on MyPaper on Friday:

Dear Mr. Nanayakara,

I object to your insinuations in your article dated July 11 2008, especially your paragraph, quoted below:

“Mercury, which by itself is a highly poisonous metal, makes up almost half of an amalgam filling, which also contains silver and a small amount of copper and tin. When introduced to the body via such amalgams, mercury can have neurotoxic effects on growing children and foetuses.”

This is a very damning and highly scientifically inaccurate statement to make.

Two very good studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association have shown no neuropsychological, renal or neurobehavioural effects of dental amalgam in children. Moreover, elemental mercury itself has a different toxicity profile in the form of vapour, liquid or as part of a restoration.

Neuropsychological and Renal Effects of Dental Amalgam in Children, A Randomized Clinical Trial JAMA.2006;295:1775-1783. David C. Bellinger, PhD, MSc; Felicia Trachtenberg, PhD; Lars Barregard, MD, PhD;Mary Tavares, DMD, MPH; Elsa Cernichiari, MS; David Daniel, PhD; Sonja McKinlay, PhD

Neurobehavioral Effects of Dental Amalgam in Children, A Randomized Clinical Trial JAMA.2006;295:1784-1792. Timothy A. DeRouen, PhD; Michael D. Martin, DMD, PhD; Brian G. Leroux, PhD;Brenda D. Townes, PhD; James S. Woods, PhD, MPH; Jorge Leitão, MD, MS;Alexandre Castro-Caldas, MD, PhD; Henrique Luis, MS; Mario Bernardo, DMD, PhD; Gail Rosenbaum, MS;Isabel P. Martins, MD, PhD

Your article is unduly alarmist, badly researched, irresponsible and potentially misleading to dental patients.

There are many indications to use other types of restorative materials such as composites, glass ionomers or ceramics but there are still very good reasons to use dental amalgams.

It is indeed disappointing and sad that a newspaper such as yours with a broad public reach would have such poorly researched information thinly veiled as news.

I look forward to either an explaination, retraction or clarification of your article, preferably quoting good research to substantiate your claims.

Kind regards,

Edgar Kieu

It's Just A THEORY, Stupid 2

By Angry Doc

Reader zhanzhao made the comment in the previous post that evolution "cannot be observed under lab conditions, vaildated [sic] nor replicated".

He is partly correct.

Evolution has been observed and validated in a lab condition, but curiously, it could not be replicated*.

Leng Hiong covered this interesting experiment briefly earlier. If you want a more detailed account but do not want to read the original paper, Bad Science has a post on an exchange between the investigator and a critic which covers some of the details of the experiment.

Both are well-worth a read.

* - Edit: On closer reading of the posts I realise that the citrate+ trait does "re-evolve" in the 'ancestors' of the populations of E. coli that evolved the trait, but not in the other 11 populations in the study, so in a sense evolution has been observed to be replicated. I apologise for the error.

It's Just A THEORY, Stupid

By Angry Doc

Rather unexpectedly, the discussion on the "exorcism" trial has spilled over to the topic of evolution.

Since angry doc is no expert in evolution, he has decided to seek help from fellow Clearthought blogger Leng Hiong to tell us why the theory of evolution is a "theory", and not a "fact".

Do have a read.

It Still Isn't An Exorcism, Stupid

By Angry Doc

More on the "exorcism" trial.

(emphasis mine)

Lawyer questions priest’s logic

Plaintiff’s lawyer accuses priest in Novena trial of evading question

Ansley Ng

IF A political party held a rally without a police permit and were quizzed about it, would the party be right to argue no rally had taken place because no permit was issued?

That was the analogy lawyer R S Bajwa made to explain that a “prayer session” two Catholic priests had carried out for his client Amutha Valli Krishnan four years ago was a violent exorcism rite that lacked authorisation from the archbishop and the church.

Calling the hypothetical reasoning “stupid”, the lawyer added: “I said you did all these acts; you said no. I asked why; you said you did not get permission from the bishop.”

Father Jacob Ong, the priest in the witness box on Friday, reiterated what another priest, Father Simon Tan, had said earlier — that no exorcism was carried out on Madam Amutha Valli. “The whole package must be followed. It cannot be set as an exorcism,” Father Ong said.

For an exorcism to be performed, the archbishop — the faith’s head in Singapore — has to give permission and appoint a priest to carry out the rites. An investigation also has to be carried out before the ritual.

Father Ong is among nine parties being sued by Mdm Amutha Valli over an alleged botched exorcism attempt at the Novena hurch in 2004. She claims the incident left her traumatised and unable to work.

“It doesn’t help you,” Mr Bajwa said in reply to Father Ong. “The substance is what we are interested in, not the form.

As Mdm Amutha Valli — who at times spoke in a voice that sounded like a low male voice — struggled harder during the alleged exorcism, the group prayed harder, the lawyer said. At one “momentous” point in time, Father Tan “engaged” the spirit by talking to it, said Mr Bajwa.

Using the same line of questioning he served on Father Tan, the lawyer asserted that Father Ong and his co-defendants had pinned Mdm Amutha Valli onto the floor in a room at the church and strangled her, thinking she had been possessed.

Father Ong disagreed, saying the group merely held a “gentle” prayer session to “protect” her even as the 52-year-old woman was screaming and writhing on the floor.

Mr Bajwa also asked the priest if he had seen people who had been possessed. The priest said he had seen instances where people displayed signs of possession and cited four examples, including people who spoke in voices that don’t sound like their own while trembling.

“Would you agree that the signs displayed by the plaintiff were more severe than these examples?” asked Mr Bajwa.

The priest replied he could not tell, prompting the lawyer to accuse him of avoiding the question.

The hearing continues on Monday

At least now someone has stated the obvious: it doesn't matter whether it was an exorcism or a "prayer of deliverance" - what matters is what happened and whether what happened caused the plaintiff to become ill. (Then again, maybe even that will not matter if the defendants can prove that the plaintiff is not actually ill.)

angry doc wonders if the persons involved in the trial would have spent so much time over terminology if one of the parties involved was not a religious organisation with an organised belief system on the existence of spirits and demons, possession by such entities, and on how to cast them out. Had the trial involved alleged alien mind-control and an attempt to break the control, the judge would perhaps not have been so indulgent.

The priests seem to be caught in a no-win situaion. To prove that they did nothing wrong, they need to show that what they did for the plaintiff was appropriate, and that means proving possession by spirit or demon, something which they cannot do. On the other hand, their argument is that the plaintiff is actually faking her illness, which if they manage to prove, will mean admission that their assessment of her condition on that day was wrong, and that the subsequent intervention (be it an exorcism or a "prayer of deliverance") was also wrong.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

It's Not An Exorcism, Stupid‏

By Angry Doc

More on the court case which we first looked at almost a year ago:

Was it exorcism?

Priest denies accusation, says it was salvation

Leong Wee Keat

IN THE witness box, he sang hymns and showed how she had apparently slithered like a snake.

Yesterday, one of the two priests accused of performing a forced exorcism at the Novena Church about four years ago — gave his version of what transpired — the first time the High Court was hearing the defence’s story.

Father Simon Tan denied that the incident on Aug 10, 2004, was an exorcism. Instead, he called it a prayer of deliverance for plaintiff Amutha Valli Krishnan.

Cross-examined by her lawyer, Mr R S Bajwa, Father Tan also said the archbishop’s permission must be sought and a thorough investigation conducted before any exorcism could be carried out.

While he did not think she was crazy, what this Catholic priest saw that night was definitely “not usual behaviour”. Father Tan, 44, claimed it “never occurred to him” that Madam Amutha Valli was possessed or was a mental patient, and that he was “just answering the family’s request to pray over her”.

Father Tan is among nine parties — including the church, Father Jacob Ong and six church helpers — being sued by Mdm Amutha Valli over an alleged forced exorcism attempt. She claims the incident left her traumatised and unable to work.

Father Tan, who was ordained in 1998, testified that exorcism is “hardly practised” and has “never heard” of it in his ministry.

But, Mr Bajwa asked: Couldn’t the priest have stopped the prayer session as Mdm Amutha Valli was strangling herself and assuming the voice of a dead soldier?

Father Tan said he did not understand why she had manifested violent behaviour, but there were at least three occasions she snapped out of her trance.

Her family had brought her to the church to be prayed over so that she could get some comfort, added the priest.

While he did not advise the family of any risks involved, Father Tan disagreed with Mr Bajwa’s question if “safeguards” should have been in place. The priest said there were cancer sufferers, for example, who turned to the church and religion for prayers and comfort.

But wouldn’t he stop to think if a devotee had prior medical history?

Father Tan disagreed, saying the incident arose from “a simple request from her family to pray”.

He added: “If I start using my mind, be self-conscious of the risks, a lot of Catholics would suffer. I would become neurotic if I’m afraid of being sued.”

The hearing continues.

angry doc wonders if the presiding judge even cares whether what happened on the day was an exorcism or a "prayer of deliverance"; what matters more would be what exactly did the priests and other church staff do for or to the plaintiff that day, and whether those things led to the illness that the plaintiff claims to be suffering from.

Whether it was an exorcism (which it technically was not) or a "prayer of deliverance", there is probably no doubt in anyone's mind that Father Tan acted out of good faith and in good faith (and had assumed the same of the plaintiff that day!). However, under the law (the Penal Code to be precise, which presumably does not strictly apply to this case), "[n]othing is said to be done or believed in good faith which is done or believed without due care and attention".

What that means, angry doc believes, is that while the law recognises that we may help someone in need with good intentions, the person being helped may sometimes actually suffer harm from our intervention. The law seeks to protect those whom we help by requiring that the person rendering the help has good reasons to believe that his actions will help that person, and at the same time not cause harm to that person.

So does Father Tan have good reasons to believe that a "prayer of deliverance" was the correct thing to administer to the plaintiff for the state which she was in on that day?

Of course, to even decide whether or not a "prayer of deliverance" was the right thing to administer, one would have had to decide what the plaintiff was suffering from.

It seems that the Father had provisionally excluded "possession" and "mental illness", and that working diagnosis was "not usual behaviour".

Was that a reasonable conclusion to make?

Is a "prayer of deliverance" a reasonable intervention for "not usual behaviour"? How often does it work? What are the risks and benefits of a "prayer of deliverance" for "not usual behaviour"? Surely that is relevant, because the plaintiff is claiming that she suffered harm from the process.

Unfortunately it doesn't seem that the lawyers pursued that line of questioning. angry doc doubts that if the lawyers had asked Father Tan those questions he would have been able to answer with figures and statistics, because it is likely that those questions never crossed the good Father's mind - or as Father Tan put it himself:

“If I start using my mind, be self-conscious of the risks, a lot of Catholics would suffer. I would become neurotic if I’m afraid of being sued.”

Poor Father Tan. Maybe that was the problem to begin with.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Fantastic Claims

By Edgar Kieu

Beware fantastic claims on supplements on the Net

YOUR recent report about two persons who were recently hospitalised for palpitations, hallucinations and anxiety from consuming a food supplement called Relacore they bought over the Internet is a reminder to consumers they should not naively believe everything they read on the Internet. It is commonplace for one to receive in one’s e-mail everyday a flood of information on health foods, dietary supplements and medicines, all claiming to fix a host of ills. You can shed weight, look younger, boost your immune system, relieve chronic pain conditions and turbo-charge your sexual performance. You only need to make a purchase via the Internet. It’s all safe, and why should you think you need to ask your doctor?

The current view is that the slimming pills consumed by the two persons may have been counterfeit versions of the genuine Relacore article. While counterfeit products are generally ineffective and produce little clinical effect, they sometimes cause actual harm.

There are no short cuts to managing one’s weight. It’s not easy, but it can be done. An overweight person needs advice on a correct and safe diet. He needs to increase his physical activity level. If this fails, the use of an approved drug under medical supervision may be appropriate. Be wary of fantastic claims.

Dr Lee Chung Horn
Singapore Association for the Study of Obesity

From Straits Times Forum page, Online Edition.

This article caught my eye as it has been a really long time since someone posted on the forums regarding absurd medical claims.

Here in Singapore, we have no shortage of quacks dispensing snake oil and despite much attention being drawn towards fantastic (I’d prefer to label them as fraudulent) claims, we still see many people falling prey to the common and usually harmless supplements.

Despite the lack of evidence supporting the consumption of antioxidants (as blogged before here), people are still lapping up all the advertisments and still buying all their supplements even when the meta-analysis pointed to an increase in mortality rate, however small.

Many of my blog readers might already be familiar with my opinion that there should be greater regulation in the area of health foods and alternative medicine. (I personally don’t like the term alternative/complementary medicine as I don’t think they are alternatives or complementary in any way) Perhaps the authorities should indeed consider having a tighter reign on such claims and start actively prosecuting people making these unjustified claims. A two pronged approach with public education and efficient prosecution coupled with close monitoring would do the industry alot of good.

However, one thought ran through my mind when I read the article: Don’t our immigration authorities screen incoming parcels containing medication? If not, who is to stop people just buying drugs (LSD, Heroin, Marijuana… you get the drift) online?

Importance Of Independent Verification

By Lim Leng Hiong

People like people who like them back.

As popular proverbs go: "A friend in need is a friend indeed", or "The best mirror is an old friend".

Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone you knew became a good friend?

No more hate, negativity, animosity and conflict.

Pure bliss? Not quite.

Actually, if that really happened, you would be utterly fucked.


Two words.

Confirmation. Bias.

You see, there are too many people who think like this:

Human senses are fallible. There are light wavelengths we can't see, sound wavelengths we can't hear, chemicals we can't taste or smell, and even our sense of touch can be highly inaccurate. On top of that, they can become garbled or even deliberately fooled under certain conditions.

Scientists insist on only believing in things that can be physically observed. But what is the basis for this trust in our own senses? Don't you need "faith" to believe that human senses or human logic can actually decipher the true nature of reality?

Since science already takes this leap of "faith", why not abandon our imperfect human senses and use our "hearts" to perceive the ultimate truth instead?

To support this stand, an often repeated claim is that "you can't convince a completely colour-blind person that colour exists."

Sure you can.

Let the people who claim the existence of "colour" select some distinctly-coloured objects, say "red" and "green" apples, which is indistinguishable to the colour-blind individual.

Then get them to sort the apples by colour.

If different people from different places in the world consistently and repeatedly pick the same specific apples to be "red" and others to be "green", you're on to something.

If animals can also see this distinction, we know that colour is not limited to human senses alone.

If people can demonstrate that different coloured objects consistently reflect a corresponding wavelength of light, which can be perceived and measured by a machine, we know that colour is not limited to living systems alone.

Even better - if a pair of goggles can be made which will represent these colours as different checkerboard patterns, then the colour-blind individual can directly convince herself that colours really exist.

Using such a device, she would be able to sort out all coloured objects, not just apples, in exactly the same way that people who can see colour would.

Of course, this is same principle behind machines like IR goggles or X-ray machines or ultrasonic detectors or carbon monoxide detectors.

Our fallible human senses cannot perceive these stimuli unaided, but no sane person would dismiss their existence.

Let's say that you were tasked to decontaminate a radioactive room. Would you put your trust on a Geiger counter (which was constructed using all too fallible human senses and logic), or would you trust your "heart" that the room is safe?

More importantly, would you base your trust on the Geiger counter on "faith" just because someone in authority told you it works, or would you personally test its accuracy against some known radioactive samples first, before even stepping into the room?

The bottom line is: a single piece of information from one sensory modality is indeed suspect, but if multiple lines of evidence from multiple independent sources all align towards the same result, then the conclusion is highly trustworthy.

This not only forms the basis of science, but also the basis of the criminal justice system for all modern democracies.

In science, this is how we determined that gravity and biological evolution are real phenomena.

In both cases, multiple lines of evidence using numerous experimental techniques, performed by independent (sometimes adversarial) research groups over many years of work consistently converge towards the same conclusion.

No faith is necessary; indeed, disbelief in gravity or biological evolution has no effect on the reality of either process.

However, there is a caveat to this method of gaining knowledge.

The key term is "independent".

You can't trust multiple sources when they are too closely related to one other.

For instance, if my vision and hearing were conveyed into my brain on the same nerve, and I suddenly see and hear something odd at the same time, I cannot count these experiences as two independent sources of information.

That is the reason why there is potential for big trouble if you are completely surrounded by like-minded and mutually-dependent friends who share your ideals and goals.

I'll give you a vivid illustration of this.

Imagine you are an avid mountain climber on your first attempt to conquer Mount Everest. You embark on this arduous journey with a number of good friends all of whom, like you, deeply desire to scale the summit.

Not long after you leave the base camp, you start getting nauseous and tired. Your heart is beating disturbingly fast, and you are beginning to throw up often.

You don't feel so good.

But your friends insist that you are doing fine and that everyone is going through the same difficulties.

Why would they say that? Maybe they have no idea how much pain you are experiencing. Maybe they simply want to encourage you to keep going. Maybe they want you to share the joy of conquering the peak together.

Or maybe you play an important role in the team and they really need you to stick around in order to succeed.

Whatever the case, you reach a camp at the halfway mark with many climbers from other teams. Your friends congratulate you for your efforts.

But a complete stranger notices your physical condition and casually remarks:

"You look like shit. Better turn back now or you'll be the next body count this season."

And then you come across a veteran climber from another team who says:

"Whoa... take it easy, man. I haven't seen another person who is as messed up as you in three years. Maybe you should consider turning back... I know I would."

Who would you trust?

Your friends? Or a couple of unrelated strangers who have nothing to lose or gain from your triumph or demise?

I think you can see that it is unwise to surround yourself with too many friends or yes-men, because they do not represent truly independent sources of information.

Their fates have become too closely intertwined with yours to dare voice out any dissenting views, even if they reflect the reality of the situation.

This may not appear to be an immediate problem for huge social groups which have enough people and resources to craft their own social realities, for example through self-affirmation and self-fulfilling prophesies.

However, cocooned within this semblance of diversity, the group incorrectly assumes that a consensus was reached via multiple independent sources, gradually losing touch with the wider reality.

It may continue to believe that everything is hunky-dory even though many lines of evidence from disinterested parties indicate that major problems lie ahead.

I cannot emphasize enough that conclusions reached using evidence from multiple sources are only trustworthy if the sources are really independent. This strategy serves to compensate for the fallibility of any single mode of information.

You are thinking: "Well, since human senses are imperfect, who cares if it's one human sense or fifty human senses. Why not depend on a single, perfect heart?"

Just a tiny problem there.

Human "hearts" are also imperfect.

If you have ever been heartbroken before, you will know how wrong a "heart" can be.